Is Hydrogen rather than electric a better future for the auto industry?

This is a guest post by Eldred Green from Sixtronic

With car makers rapidly increasing development in electric cars in a bid to reduce their CO2 emissions, the question arises if investment into hydrogen rather than electric cars would not be a better alternative for the consumer and the environment.

Have you ever experienced that annoying feat that happens when your trusty mobile phone stops holding a full charge? Well, that is what has been happening to my LG Optimus 7 for the past few days. Maximum charge is approximately 30% so I had had to order a new battery from Amazon. This got me thinking; if this faith is destined for all battery powered devices,

  • Then that means the same will happen to electric cars right?
  • What is the cost of a replacement battery pack?
  • Are they really the best alternative to our diesel and petrol powered cars?

Many questions, but one I feel is very important for consumers to ask especially in this era were we are all concerned about greenhouse gases and the impact on the environment.

lithium-ion battery (© newspress )
The first batch of all electric cars currently on sale use lithium ion batteries just like those found in your mobile phone or laptop. The two most advanced all electric cars at the moment are the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S. The leaf is the only one currently on sale in the UK at a RRP of £30,000 before the £5,000 government grant is applied. It has a warranty of 5 years or 60,000 miles but then, that is when things get kind of complicated.

Nissan Leaf (© newspress )
The Leaf’s battery pack is made up of 48 modules, and a replacement for each module costs £404. That means, to replace all of them, you will be faced with a massive £19,000 bill. Nissan has said it is unlikely you will ever need to replace all of them but if the battery depletes by 20% over the next 5 years, how many will you be required to replace?

The first Tesla vehicle the roadster, has a battery replacement bill of $10,000 but that is not so bad considering it’s $110,000 (£90,000 UK) asking price. The major issue was not with the cost of the battery but with a potential flaw that was revealed earlier this year that is not covered in the warranty.

Tesla Roadster (© newspress )
If you let the battery drain completely – example, living the car in an airport car park for a few weeks if you travel – it will result in the car bricking. In essence, the battery will be completely dead and will refuse to charge. There is nothing that can be done but to completely replace the battery and since it is not covered under Tesla warranty, you will have to foot the $40,000 bill for a replacement battery.

Tesla on their website said the Model S has more protection than the Roadster and would only reach full discharge after 12 months if it is left parked with a 50 percent charge.   “Model S batteries also have the ability to protect themselves as they approach very low charge levels by going into a ‘deep sleep’ mode that lowers the loss even further. A Model S will not allow its battery to fall below about 5 percent charge. At that point the car can still sit for many months. Of course you can drive a Model S to 0 percent charge, but even in that circumstance, if you plug it in within 30 days, the battery will recover normally,”

Tesla Model S (© wikipedia )

It’s obvious that there have been a lot of upgrades to the Model S battery that makes it much more reliable and hassle free than the Roadster but it still lives one to approach with a bit of scepticism.

Ownership of an electric car seems to be quite expensive but the costs could plummet over time if electric cars become more widely adopted which would lead to faster, more efficient and cheaper batteries. But it seems consumers are not snapping them up as quickly as possible.

In January, BBC reported that in 2011, the Nissan Leaf sold less than 21,000 units worldwide. Those figures are disappointing for a car being hailed as the future of the automobile industry. Chevrolet with its Volt (Vauxhall Ampera in the UK) saw similarly disappointing sales figures and that is not even a pure electric car like the Leaf but a range extender. Consumers not jumping quickly on the electric car band wagon can be attributed to two factors namely price and most importantly, range.

You see, we all know that the mileage that manufacturers quote for their cars is quite difficult to achieve but with an electric car, it is even worse. Nissan quotes a range of 109 miles for the Leaf but in real world circumstances, expect to get between 50 – 80% of that. That range will even worsen further during the winter because batteries don’t operate at peak efficiency. This means that, it is only suitable for city duellers. If you are going to be driving from city to city, then electric cars are not for you. And let’s not forget to factor in the long 12 hours recharge time if connected to a normal home socket.

The Tesla Model S has a much higher range of 265 miles but that is for the top of the line version which costs $70,000 after the $7,500 US federal government tax credit. Then there is this issue of if our power grids can cope with an influx of millions of electric cars in the future and the impact it will have on our electric bills.

Another concern is the availability of lithium. The world’s current supply of lithium comes from very few countries. A third of the current supply comes from South America but huge deposits have been found in Bolivia.

If electric car adoption becomes the norm, the question naturally arises: Will we be at the mercy of countries like Afghanistan for our supply of lithium? It’s a question that sounds very familiar, with us being dependent on war torn countries and a few others for the supply of our Oil needs.

I hope you don’t think for a second that I hate electric cars because I don’t. I believe that have a future in the auto industry but not as the sole source of power. I believe cars like Vauxhall Ampera\Chevrolet Volt and the Fisker Karma are the future of electric cars. They are plug-in hybrids and what this means is that they are driven on electric power but they have small petrol engines on-board that act as generators to create electricity to power the wheels when the main batteries of the main electric motors are depleted. This approach helps the Ampera attain a range of over 360 miles.

The Hydrogen alternative

Hydrogen is my favourite by a long shot. Hydrogen is the most abundant and simplest element on the planet when you split it from H20. A device called a fuel cell converts the hydrogen to electricity to power a car and the only by-product is heat and water vapour.

There has been a lot of research into hydrogen cars over the years with prototypes like GM’s Electrovan Fuel Cell vehicle, which debuted in 1966 and the Mercedes Benz  F-cell.  Honda has made the biggest strides of any car maker with bringing to production (albeit just 200) the FCX Clarity hydrogen car.

Honda FCX Clarity (© newspress )
It was available only in California, where the public can lease the car at $600 (£380) a month, with fuel on top. Refuelling its 171 litre tank takes between 3-4 minutes which is very similar to current petrol/diesel engine cars rather than the massive 8-12 hours required for electric cars. 171 litres may sound like a lot but due to its nature, hydrogen is much lighter than fossil fuels so comes in at just 4kg resulting in the FCX clarity weighing no different than a similarly sized executive car.

Mazda RX-8 Hydrogen RE (© newspress )
Mazda have also created a version of the RX8 called the RX-8 Hydrogen RE, which is a hydrogen rotary engine vehicle which operates on both high-pressure hydrogen and gasoline. It is equipped with Mazda’s dual-fuel system that enables switching between hydrogen and gasoline fuel modes. It has been undergoing tests in Norway and has proved extremely successful.

Another advantage over electric vehicles is Fuel cells don’t strain the power grid like EVs, which can potentially overload utilities if they aren’t prepared to meet the increased demand for electricity.

The trials of the FCX clarity have been so successful, Journalists have raved about it and almost every single car maker out there will agree that the Fuel Cell is the best solution for the auto car and will end our dependency on fossil fuels. So, if the fuel cell is so revolutionary, why is it on the sick bed?

There are two main reasons. The first being the extraction of the hydrogen element itself and the availability of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.

Extracting hydrogen requires far more energy than you get out of it and at the moment, and that extraction process is not environmentally friendly. This can be overcome by creating Hydrogen via wholly sustainable ways by using bio-mass, natural gas reformation, electrolysis using photovoltaic, water or wind sources to provide the electricity required.

An argument for the energy lost/gained is irrelevant when you take into account that Hydrogen is already been extracted by big industrial processes that are taking place all the time like the production of chlorine which produces vast amount of Hydrogen.

In terms of the refuelling infrastructure, In the UK, there is only one commercial hydrogen filling station, which opened September in Swindon.  Without a government backed system in place, manufacturers would not invest the billions of dollars required in R&D of hydrogen cars.

Hydrogen charging station Swindon (© newspress )

There is some hope, with the UKH2Mobility announced earlier in the year. It is collaboration between the UK government and 13 companies to try and make Hydrogen powered cars a commercial success by 2015. “Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles are increasingly being recognised as one of the viable options as we move to a lower carbon motoring future,” said Business Minister Mark Prisk. Japan, Germany and the US all have similar strategies in place but we have been hearing this kind of talk for decades.

When Mercedes Benz unveiled the A-class hydrogen car in 1997, we were told that in the next 7 years we would get hydrogen powered cars available to the public and those promises stretch back even further to the 70’s and now not a single car is available to buy and we still have a piss poor refuelling infrastructure.

Hydrogen is the most abound element, and yes it’s has issues like being flammable and hard to extract but how is drilling in the middle of the sea any easier? How are spills any safer? This is a substance that could power our vehicles without requiring long 8-12hour recharging time or expensive maintenance down the line like electric cars and don’t use batteries that come from mines which are available in just select countries and cause as much pollution as what they are trying to counter.

Without a doubt, we need to reduce our dependency on Oil. The price of an oil barrel is only going to keep increasing. We lived off of it for a century and it is now time to move on, not just for the sake of technological progress but also if we want the future of the planet to be safe and a truly sustainable one.

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